When Faith Turns Deadly: Bill Maher's "Religulous"

by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "You know, if I discover that I was Satan in person, I would do a good job, too."

Bill Maher: "As Satan?"

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "Because I would be faithful to my calling." 

Just happened to run across "Religulous" on Netflix. Spent nearly 2 hours unable to peel self from screen. Alternately laughing and sort of crying inside. At how much people want to believe; at how willing we are to deceive each other in G-d's name; at how easily we deceive ourselves.

And then punish other people who refuse not to think.

The body of the movie consists of Maher interviewing assorted representatives of various religions and religious sects, including Christianity (mainstream, evangelical, Catholicism), Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.

Every interview, with the exception of the interview of the Catholic astronomer and the maverick Catholic priest in Rome, is marked by the refusal of seemingly religious people to think objectively about what they are saying. They are blindly observant of whatever version of religion they observe.

So they talk faith to Maher, and when faith can't stand up to reason, they confront Maher either angrily or condescendingly.

A quote from Maher's monologue at the end of the movie sums up his message:
"Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.

"And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.

"The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting s**t dead wrong."
The methodological flaw in the documentary of course is that there are many religious people who actually do insist on applying reason to faith. How they reconcile belief in G-d and belief differs and is a whole other documentary.

My guess is that Maher avoided thinking religious people because he psychologically is wedded to his own doubt and doesn't want to meet people who will make him open his own closed mind.

What's fascinating is that in an attempt to avoid challenging himself, Maher winds up with a brilliant experiment in the sociology of religion. What he shows, mostly, is that the more cult-like a religion or religious sect is, the more closed it is to thinking, and the more dangerous it is to humanity because of its insistence on turning the "other" into an enemy.

At the same time, unfortunately, by focusing on people who represent the worst stereotype of religion - that it's about being brainwashed, and brainwashing others, rather than true reflection - Maher distorted what it's really all about.

Academically at least my faith put a lot of value on asking challenging questions, on testing the answers, on grappling intellectually, then on choosing to do the right thing.

(The problem of course is that they thought they already had the answers when that wasn't necessarily true, and defended things that didn't make sense; in addition I had trouble with the way people actually acted as opposed to what was written in the books.)

Personally I believe you are supposed to actually think and think hard, test out what you believe, make a rational decision (at least one that seems rational to you), then choose the right thing. You are also supposed to know that your mind is frail and that your reasoning isn't as good as G-d's reasoning - so you have to have faith sometimes.

It's the fact that you find G-d in a difficult way, that makes your journey to spirituality meaningful. And nobody can have it for you or teach it to you.

Maher's film is important to watch on a lot of levels. If you care about free speech, if you care about religious freedom as well as the mis-interpretation of religion, if you care about social issues, it's worth watching. It's also worth learning about the way different religions view the world.

It would have been nice had he included Buddhism, which could have contributed a lot to the conversations, but probably he didn't because it is difficult to make fun of a group that insists on applying rational thought to every exercise, and that sees the purpose of the world as eliminating human suffering rather than focusing on G-d.

Have a good day, and keep thinking.

Good luck!